Adventures, Close Calls & Notable Events
The best part of what my father brought back from the war was the stories of the adventures and close calls. That he had during the war. Other memories did not involve danger but were notable none the less. Dad was a quiet type who did not talk much.These events were not mentioned often but I remember them. Two of these events did not come from dad. One came from my mum and another came from my cousin.
Dad Joins the Army
After training at Ottawa Normal School (a teacher training place) dad spent one year as a public (elementary school) teacher in a rural area. This was not a high point in his life and he mentioned it even less than his war experience and then not in any detail. I guess he figured that the war could not be any worse so he joined the army. During his army career he had to keep quiet about his time as a teacher because all of the school dropouts were now sargents and corporals and dad was a lowly private.
The Mystery of the Instructor's perfectly square pack sack.
During basic training at Camp Petawawa the instructor in dad's training platoon was an old guy ( in his thirties or forties). As part of the training he would take the platoon out on route marches. The instructor showed the platoon how to pack the army packsack which was carried on the back. According to the instructor the packsack was supposed to be perfectly square if you packed it right. Everyone tried and followed the directions, but no matter how hard or how many times you could never get it perfectly square. You could get it almost square but none of the platoon were able to get it absolutly square. However, everyone was able to get the packsacks square enough. However, the instructor was able to get his pack perfectly square. During route marches his pack was perfectly square and remained perfectly square during the entire march. Dad never mentioned his name but for the purpose of the narrative I will call him Sgt Squarepack. Sgt. Squareback never opened his pack during a march and he never let any of his trainees get a close look at it. There were a few suspicions going around in the platoon but when basic training ended all was forgotten and the men got on with their military careers.
Months later after transfer to the airforce and when dad was in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) shocking news spread throught all of the Canadian forces. "Did you hear what they did at Petawawa?" was heard everywhere. An instructor was caught by an officer with a square wooden frame in his back. While the trainees carried a full pack, his was virtually empty. At the time it was big news!
In a related scandal an NCO was caught during a gas mask Inspection with his gas mask bag filled with wood shavings. This was particularly embarassing because he was the one who followed behind the inspecting officer and recorded the names of the of those men who did had gas mask infractions. One day the officer decided to check his gas mask bag and he was caught.
Dad the Dental Assistant
Dad's job in the army after basic training was dental assistant. He mixed fillings for the army dentist and did other realated duties. One day a soldier in the dentist's chair opened his mouth. The dentist and and dad saw that all of the man's teeth were matted together and you could not tell where one tooth left off and another began. This caused some alarm. The dental officer called in another dentist from the next room to look. Finally, the conversation went like this:
Dental Officer: "Where you issued with a toothbrush, soldier."
Soldier: "Yes Sir"
Dental Officer : "Do you use it?"
Soldier : "Nope"
Dental Officer: "Well you use it every day for a month and then come back and see us"
The dental assistant jobs were being taken over by women, so dad had to find something else to do in the army.
Dad gets transferred to the Air Force
At about this time, the RCAF needed men and dad took the opportunity to transfer to the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force). Dad was among the first group who were discharged from the army and put on a train to an airforce station. Some of the men must have got lost in transit because in later transfers the men were not discharged from the army until they had been sworn in by the air
Dad joins the precision drill team
During preliminary training with the RCAF there was not much to do after hours so dad joined the precision drill team which practiced after hours. They got to form the military honor guard at funerals. Once years later when we were driving through a small town in the Eastern Townships dad remarked that he had been there before for a funeral. He did not stop the car, dad just drove on. The highlight was a trip to New York city where they got to perform some precision drill.
Dad gets flight training
Dad started flight training in Tiger Moths and went on to train in Harvards and Avro Anson aircraft. I think he also trained on Lockheed Hudson's. Dad trained in Carp Ontario outside of Ottawa. Before his first solo flight the instructor would point in the direction of the province of Quebec and say, "Stay on this side of the river (The Ottawa River forms the border between Ontaro and Quebec), if you come down over there we won't even go and look for you!" The province of Quebec was considered a real never never land in those days.
Dad did further training flights in the maritive provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia & Prince Edward Island). Sadly did could not quite master the landing part. I saw his log book (since lost) which had his airforce report cart stamped in the pages. Dad was below average in everything except navigation and bombing and in those two he was only average. He did a commission and become a Pilot Officer. Never-the-less, he still qualified as flight crew and served as a navigator-bombadier.
Dad ships out
On his last leave before shipping out dad made a quick trip to Summerside, Prince Edward Island to marry mom. At the armed forces canteen before departure, the news was that candy bars would not be available on board ship. The canteen as luck would have it was selling chocolate bars by the box. Dad and many others of course bought a box. On board ship, contrary to previous information, there was no shortage of candy bars. Some men sold the chocolate once they arrived in England. Dad gave his to some relatives in England when he went for a visit. It was a great treat.
The ship dad crossed over to Europe on was the "Empress of Scotland". It was a hastily renamed passenger liner. The plaque on the inside of the ship still read "Empress of Japan". Conditions were crowded, but the crossing was without incident. The ship was considered fast enough to be able to cross the U-boat infested Atlantic without the usual convoy. The trip took about a week. One airman was a nervous type who kept his life jacket on 24 hours a day during the entire crossing.
The Discovery of Wales
In England dad joined a flight crew as a navigator-bombadier. The other in the crew were the pilot, Paddy Clune from Northern Ireland, Steve Durnin and Bill Folka both from British Columbia. On their first flight with their new B-25 Mitchell bomber they climbed up many thousands of feet through the clouds and headed west. They were cruising along at what they thought was a high altitude when all of a sudden they saw group a mere few hundred feet below them. The pilot quickly turned the plane around and headed back. The had almost run into Wales - literally. It was a close call and a bad scare. No one had expected the ground to come up to meet them so soon.
Dad was walking along a country road in England early in the morning on a day when he was off duty. The surrounding countryside was very flat. He heard a plane engine and looked up. The sky was covered with aircraft from one horizon to the other in all directions with aircraft flying wing tip to wing tip in formation. All of them had white stripes painted on the underside for positive identification. It was the invasion of Europe. The planes were on the way to bomb the invasion beachs. Everyone knew it was coming and everyone knew what it was. No one knew where or when. Dad continued to the pub. Everyone waited eagerly for the official announcement of what they already knew had taken place.
The crew went operational and flew from bases in England, France and Belgium. During a high altitude flight some ice built up onthe propellar of the B-25. Without warning the chunck of ice flew off the propeller and through the plexiglass window and narrowly missed dad's head. Dad narrowly missed being killed or injured. Even without enemy action flying involved some danger.
A Hole in the Wing
During combat operations a German 105 mm. anti-aircraft shell hit the wing dad's plane. It made a nice neat round hole in the metal wing of the B-25 and exploded some distance above the plane. It was a direct hit, but the fuse in the shell was set for the wrong altitude. The plane and its crew escaped with only a hole in the wing. It was a very narrow escape to say the least.
A German 105 mm. Anti-Aircraft Gun makes a Direct Hit - (but not direct enough)
During operations dad's plane was typically the last in the formation. In the RAF the higher the rank of the pilot, the closer to the front of the formation his plane flew. Paddy Clune, the pilot on dad's plane was only a sargent like dad. This meant that his plane was last in the formation. The tail end of the formation was the most dangerous place to fly.
Dad's plane was going through flak (anit-aircraft fire) in formation on the way to a target when dad felt the plane get hit. Dad automatically reached for the bomb release switch (known as the teat squeezer) and pulled it fast. Two tons of bombs, eight 500 lb. bombs, fell out of the plane just before the B-25 lost its hydraulics. The pilot asked dad to go back and see what was wrong with the top turret gunner. Dad got to the gunner's position and found that the gunner, Gil Folka from British Columbia had been hit. A 105 anti-aircraft shell had exploded just off of the ends of the twin .5 (called "point fives" in the RAF & known to Americans as .50 caliber) machine guns. The blast from the shell forced the glass from the gun's reflector sight into the gunner's eye. Dad did a first aid job on the gunner and patched up the eye.
The Mitchell was in bad shape. One of the twin tail assemblies was gone and there were a lot of holes in the aircraft. The crew was saved by the B-25's all metal construction. A wooden aircraft in the same situation would have been lost. The pilot, Paddy Clune managed to fly the plane back to base (I think it was Melsbrook, in Belgium at this time). There was no hydraulics so dad and Sid Byfield, the other gunner cranked down the landing gear by hand. On his first attempt to land, Paddy Clune overshot the runway, so dad & Sid Byfield had to crank the landing gear up again as Paddy came around for the second pass and then back down again for the second attempt at landing. Cranking the landing gear up and down by hand was hard job. Paddy landed the plane on the second attempt. Everyone was surprised that the plane had made it back to base. Someone on the ground crew got the job of counting the holes in the plane. There was about 130 of them.
Sid Byfield's nerve broke after, Gil Folka got hit and he had to be sent home. He was a nervous type and had kept his life jacket on during the whole week when they crossed the Atlantic from Halifax on the Empress of Scotland. Everyone said that he should have been weeded out in training. However, to his credit, everyone said that he did okay until Gil Folka got hit. The doctor back at the base congratulated dad on a good first aid job and said that there was never any hope of saving Gil Folka's eye. Gil Folka made it back to British Columbia, alive.
That was a close call. Dad described the shell burst as "just about a direct hit" Luckily it was just not direct enough.
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